Picking a Pet Food: It's Harder Than You'd Think!

Growing up, my dogs always ate Iams or Beneful. It was a pretty easy thing to feed because we could get it when we bought our own food and our vet never really suggested anything different. I can’t remember the exact moment I realized that what I was feeding was complete garbage, but the difference between what I feed my dogs now compared to then is staggering. To be fair to myself and my family, we really didn’t know any better. It’s important to remember that the pet food companies who make our dog food also need to create a profit. The pet food industry is also self-regulated, meaning that they set their own guidelines to follow. It is difficult to figure out what food to buy when everything advertises “100% balanced nutrition” and that it contains “real meat”. It is up to us, the pet owner, to read the labels and figure out what is actually in our dog food. In February of 2016, there were only 93 certified veterinary nutritionists and over ninety percent of them worked for Nestle and Mars who own large pet food companies like Science Diet and Royal Canin. It is pretty easy to assume that their opinions are pretty biased, but, so are mine! Here is a bit of a background as to why I am so interested in what we put in our pet’s bowls. My dog, Ziggy, was diagnosed with cancer over a year ago and I became fascinated with canine nutrition. I consulted Head to Tail Canine Nutrition and discovered that feeding carbohydrates to dogs fuels the growth of mass cell tumours. To put it simply, carbohydrates are sugars and when humans eat too much processed sugar it isn’t really that great for us. So before you continue to read this blog post, please note that I promote feeding both dogs and cats balanced and fresh diets. I believe that when we feed kibble to our dogs and cats, there is still so much more that we can be adding to their bowl to make it better for them! The same can be said for owners who feed raw or home cooked meals.

Seriously, how cute is my dog?

Seriously, how cute is my dog?

Okay, now that I’ve told you all of this, lets get to the real topic of this blog: How in the world do I pick out a bag of dog food? Going into a pet store to pick out a food for your dog can be really overwhelming. The same 25lb bag of food can range from twenty dollars to one hundred! Then you add in frozen raw meals, canned food, freeze dried and the list goes on and on! So, what really makes a difference? Is feeding that one hundred dollar bag of food that much better than feeding the food that costs twenty dollars? I hope to skim the surface of ways to pick out a pet food in this blog, but I realize there is still so much more information out there and so much more to be researched.

What’s in the bag?

A lot of the time, bags of food will state on the bag that “meat is the first ingredient”. The ingredient list on the side of your dog food bag is listed from what is most found in the food to the least BEFORE it is processed. That means that the list includes the moisture from the meat before it was even cooked! After it is processed, there really isn’t much left of that chicken. The dry ingredient in the food, such as brown rice and corn meal, will stay the same after they are processed into kibble, but the meat has lost so much of its moisture it gets bumped down the ingredient list. You can even see this with your own eyes at home! When you cook a chicken, it goes into the oven looking quite large, but after it is cooked it dries out and becomes much smaller. The same thing happens when that chicken is processed into kibble. And even more astonishing, the chicken in your pets food is basically burnt so it includes even less moisture than a chicken you would cook at home. So, when you are looking at the list of ingredients, you want to make sure that the second and third ingredients are also meat.
The wording on the bag can also be confusing. What really is the difference between, chicken, chicken meal, chicken by-product meal or even meat by-product? “AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.” They are not government regulated and it is important to note that even if a pet food meets AAFCO standards, this isn’t really saying much. AAFCO meets every year to revamp their definitions of what can be in pet food, but big pet food companies are also present at this time. So after saying this, let’s take a look at their definitions!
Chicken is a clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcasses of chickens thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
Chicken meal is the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with and without accompanying bone, derived from whole carcasses of chicken thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
Chicken by-product meal consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.
Meat by-products is the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal feed. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto. Meat by-products or animal by-products can come from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats.

Because ingredients are listed before they are processed, which is a better ingredient, chicken or chicken meal? Chicken meal is a dry ingredient, therefore it remains at the same spot in your ingredient list after it is processed. If we compare a pound of chicken to a pound of chicken meal in our ingredients list, chicken meal provides more nutrients. It is important to remember that the word “meal” isn’t necessarily bad for our pets. If an ingredient is listed as a “by-product meal”, then it is time to worry.

There are also standards for the way pet food is advertised. If a bag of kibble says “Dinner, Nugget or Formula”, the bag only needs to have twenty-five percent of the overall protein being a derivative of meat. If it says “with” followed by a meat, the bag only needs to have three precent of the overall protein being a derivative of meat. Even worse, if your dog food bag says “natural chicken flavour” it doesn’t even need to have meat in the bag! It could possibly contain trace amounts, but it is not required.

Kibbles n BitsAccording to AAFCO, to be able to use the word “natural” on a bag of food, the feed or ingredient needs to be derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in the unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, ezymolysis or fermentation. All of that processing doesn’t really sound that natural to me!

What about the word, “organic”? Use of the term “organic” means that the food needs to have 3% organic chicken and 67% other organic ingredients. The food can still contain nonorganic chicken meal and nonorganic chicken fat. That doesn’t really sound that organic to me.

Comparing Pet Foods

With all of this information, I want to compare two different kibbles and a raw food. A 30lb bag of Purina Beneful Original with Chicken costs approximately $34.99 before taxes. A 25lb bag of Go! Fit&Free Chicken, Turkey and Trout costs approximately $78.99. A 4lb tub of Mega Dog Raw Beef is $16.99.

Beneful Originals
Ingredients: Chicken, whole grain corn, barley, rice, chicken by-product meal, whole grain wheat, corn gluten meal, beef tallow preserved with mixed-tocopherols, soybean meal, oat meal, poultry by-product meal, glycerin, egg and chicken flavor, mono and dicalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, salt, potassium chloride, poultry and pork digest, avocado, dried carrots, dried tomatoes, MINERALS [zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, copper sulfate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite], VITAMINS [Vitamin E supplement, niacin, Vitamin A supplement, calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B-6), Vitamin B-12 supplement, thiamine mononitrate (Vitamin B-1), Vitamin D-3 supplement, riboflavin supplement (Vitamin B-2), menadione sodium bisulfite (Vitamin K), folic acid, biotin], choline chloride, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2, garlic oil, Yellow 6.

Alright, so at first glance we see that the first ingredient is chicken, pretty good, right? Well, not really because this is a list of ingredients before it’s cooked so let’s bump that one down three spots. That leaves us with Whole grain corn, barley and rice as our first three ingredients. Our dogs are carnivores and unless they can’t digest animal protein for a medical reason, that doesn’t sound too good to me. If we keep reading down that list we also see chicken by-product-meal. It is likely that after these ingredients were cooked, that the chicken and chicken by-product-meal will have equal amounts in the food. We can also see that “corn” has been split up in the ingredients and is listed twice as “whole grain corn” and “corn gluten meal”. This is a common tactic used by pet food companies to fool owners! This makes the less desirable ingredient appear lower on the list.

The packaging of this bag is quite nice. The photographs on the bag include fresh meat and veggies, which we know is good for our dogs. But, in the ingredients list the avocado, tomatoes and carrots that they advertise are the last ingredients before the listing of trace minerals. We also see a lack of real chicken when we actually understand how to read the ingredient list. It makes sense then that I’m only paying $34.99 for this bag of food. Even though it claims to contain healthy ingredients, we can tell by the price that this isn’t really true.

The next food to look at is Go! Fit and Free Chicken, Turkey and Trout Recipe. Go Fit and Free

Ingredients: Chicken meal, turkey meal, salmon meal, de-boned chicken, de-boned turkey, de-boned trout, potatoes, peas, tapioca, lentil beans, chickpeas, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), natural chicken flavour, whole dried egg, apples, duck meal, herring meal, salmon oil, alfalfa, de-boned duck, de-boned salmon, sweet potatoes, canola oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), coconut oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), flaxseed, potassium chloride, pumpkin, carrots, bananas, blueberries, cranberries, broccoli, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, blackberries, squash, papayas, pomegranate, dried chicory root, dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, dried Enterococcus faecium fermentation product, dried Aspergillus niger fermentation product, dried Aspergillus oryzae fermentation product, vitamins (vitamin A supplement, vitamin D3 supplement, vitamin E supplement, inositol, niacin, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (a source of vitamin C), d-calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, beta-carotene, riboflavin, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid, biotin, vitamin B12 supplement), minerals (zinc proteinate, iron proteinate, copper proteinate, zinc oxide, manganese proteinate, copper sulphate, ferrous sulphate, calcium iodate, manganous oxide, selenium yeast), sodium chloride, taurine, yucca schidigera extract, dried rosemary, green tea extract, peppermint, parsley, rosehips, zedoary, dandelion, chamomile, ginger, fennel, turmeric, juniper berries, licorice, marigold extract, cardamom, cloves.

The first thing I notice about this food is that the first six ingredients are meat! The first three are meals, meaning that the ingredient is already cooked. This tells us that these are actually the first three ingredients! I also notice that there isn’t ingredient splitting (i.e. potato and potato protein). There are also a lot of fruits and vegetables in this recipe which I really like. It also comes in puppy, adult and senior so if your dog is picky and likes this food then you’ve found a winner.

The last food I’d like to look it is a raw dog food diet. The following is Mega Dog Raw Beef Blend. mega dog beef

Ingredients: Beef w/ bone, beef offal (lung, heart, liver), vegetable blend (carrots, zucchini, collard greens, broccoli), beef tripe, kelp. (Free-range, grass-fed beef.)

This is a Canadian Brand of Food and their meat comes from only government inspected farms. The cattle used to make this food is grass-fed as well. In the United States it is legal to feed cows other cows, horses and chickens to fatten them up before slaughter and cows are herbivores. We can imagine what feeding a biologically inappropriate diet to a cow would do to the quality of beef they produce! One of the main reasons I love raw dog food is that you only get what your dog actually needs. It is a fresh diet, therefore it does not require any preservatives.

A friendly reminder that if you decide to try a raw diet to your dog to use stainless steel dishes and wash them after each feeding. Ensure that your water dishes are washed often too and that you disinfect the surface you used to prepare the raw.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to try your best. It is unrealistic to think that all pet parents can afford a fresh raw diet. Adding as much fresh food as you can benefit your pet in the long run! If you are looking for more information on this topic, check out the following resources:

-Pet Fooled: This is an awesome documentary that is on Netflix or can be rented online. It discusses the benefits of feeding a fresh diet as well as some of the horrid secrets of the pet food industry.

-Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs: The Definitive Guide to Homemade Meals by Lew Olson

-Why Dog’s Don’t Live Forever a Ted Talk by Rodney Habib


If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us!

Keep those tails waggin’ and those kisses coming!

Auntie Emily